It’s hard to figure out what’s more amazing in the wryly titled “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”: getting a look at and feel for the 75-year-old comedian’s unrelenting drive and energy, or the fact that she has such a potty mouth.

It’s hard to figure out what’s more amazing in the wryly titled “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”: getting a look at and feel for the 75-year-old comedian’s unrelenting drive and energy, or the fact that she has such a potty mouth.


The ambition, according to this documentary, has always been there, even back when she started in 1966, when female stand-ups were still a novelty. But she worked clean back then, talking about herself and women’s roles. In the black-and-white footage from an old Jack Paar appearance, she comes across as a higher-pitched version of Woody Allen.


In current footage, much of it shot in 2009, she is truly blue. When an angry heckler spouts off at her during a show, she gives it right back in a manner that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush.


But this is much more than a performance film. It’s an in-your-face, year-in-the-life look at what makes Rivers tick.


That would be determination. She had it in the days before Bill Cosby landed her a spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show, where she was such an immediate hit, Carson told her, on-air, that she was going to be a star.


“My life changed,” said Rivers, thinking back to that day. She did indeed become a star, packing concert halls, pretty much owning red carpet segments at award shows, eventually being named permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show.” One of the film’s toughest moments is when she recalls that her success – she was given her own TV show on Fox, during Carson’s time slot – led to their friendship crashing and burning.


“He never spoke to me again,” she said, nearly tearing up.


Rivers is just as candid in talking about her addiction to plastic surgery, her disappointment at never becoming a straight actress, and what she went through when her producer husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide after the Fox show was canceled.


The film also peeks in on other people in her life these days, from her daughter, Melissa, to her often AWOL manager, Billy Sammeth, and her overworked but ever-smiling assistant, Jocelyn Pickett.


Rivers, who never once seems aware of a camera following her around, is presented as an almost shark-like woman, in that she can never stay still, must always keep moving forward. Admitting that she’ll probably never retire, she’s always looking for new projects, worrying that her old calendar books are much more crowded than her new ones, saying that the only way she can maintain her staff and her gorgeously furnished apartment is to keep working ... and getting the price she wants in the venues that she can fill.


“I am a comedy icon,” she said proudly, without any hint of bragging. “I don’t want to walk into a half-empty room.” With that in mind, she decides that $25,000 for performing on a three-day cruise will be fine – talk about your captive audiences. But to prepare, she should probably take a quick look at her supply of jokes. They’re all kept on cards, in file drawers that literally stretch up to the ceiling.


The documentary takes on a hint of a plot when Rivers decides to focus much of her energy on doing a play of her life story, frets over it with collaborators, then heads to Scotland and England to try it out on the stage.


All the while she’s free and easy about letting her insecure side show through. The reason she agreed to take part in Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” last year? “Because it was face time on network TV.” There’s no red carpet footage in this film, but it’s bursting with refreshing honesty.


JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (Rated R for language and sexual humor). A documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. With Joan Rivers. 3 stars out of 4.


The Patriot Ledger